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What Is Your Gut Telling You?

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What Is Gut Bacteria? continued...

Some evidence suggests it’s not the presence or absence of one particular type of bacteria that makes a microbiome a healthy one, but rather the diversity of bacteria.

“If you have a wide array of bacteria that can break down lots of different food sources, produce lots of different molecules that help mature your immune system, and produce the molecules that your brain needs to function properly, you can see how that would potentially be a benefit over a less diverse gut microbiome,” says Joseph Petrosino, PhD. He's the director of the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research at Baylor College of Medicine.

Microbiome and Disease

Microbiome studies are still too new to reveal whether certain bacteria might cause disease or whether disease might breed certain bacteria -- or whether the relationship is something else altogether. For now, scientists are only making links between a person’s bacterial makeup and the presence of certain diseases. Regardless of whether a cause-and-effect relationship is found, looking at gut bacteria could become a way for doctors to diagnose certain diseases earlier and more accurately, Petrosino says.

Research has shown links to colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diabetes, and obesity. While these conditions might seem more related to the intestines or metabolism, gut bacteria has been linked to diseases throughout the body. 

Certain bacteria can strengthen the immune system, while others can promote the inflammation that’s part of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, recent research shows.

“Many diseases -- of the skin, lungs, joints, and other tissue -- are caused by inflammation,” Petrosino says. “A bacterial imbalance can lead to elevated inflammation that can advance disease.” 

A recent study shows that people with untreated rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory autoimmune disease, have more of a particular inflammatory bacteria in their intestines and less of a known beneficial bacteria than their healthy counterparts.

Researchers have also uncovered connections between intestinal bacteria and anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADD, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. Some chalk up this link to intestinal bacteria’s ability to make small molecules (called metabolites) that can reach the brain and impact how it works.

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